Lab-cultured Coffee

A group of scientists is tackling the issue of sustainability in the coffee industry head-on, by developing a lab-grown alternative.

With an estimated 138 million cups consumed globally every hour, coffee is the fourth most popular beverage in the world by total volume sales.

While demand is steady, the global supply chain and market price of coffee remain volatile. Bloomberg reports that bean prices reached a ten-year high in November 2021, but only amid concerns that weather and unsustainable agricultural practices could affect the availability of many current and future varieties.

These problems are connected and can be solved, says Dr Heiko Rischer, Head of Plant Biotechnology at VTT, the research institute behind the world’s first lab-grown coffee blend. Dr Rischer explains the scientific breakthrough in the simplest terms: the process produces “real coffee cell cultures, but they are not generated in a field. Instead we grow them in bioreactors.”

Speaking to New Atlas, Dr Rischer elaborates: “These solutions have a lower water footprint and less transport is needed due to local production. There isn’t any seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either.” This is likely to appeal to the growing number of consumers who are more conscious of their “foodprint”, the environmental impact of what they eat and drink.

The use of cellular agriculture is growing rapidly. VTT is already researching raw ingredients grown from microbes. By bypassing agricultural methods, the process threatens to undercut people who rely on farming for their livelihoods.

The Fairtrade Foundation has been advocating for a more sustainable and equitable coffee supply chain since 1992. Speaking to Predictedit, Fairtrade advises approaching innovations like this with caution.

While “in the future” the charity would “want to see producer-countries have the opportunity to become experts in such innovation … currently we need to focus on highlighting the reality farmers face.”

Fairtrade notes that over 70% of the world’s coffee is produced by smallholder farmers who are already facing “a triple crises of climate change, Covid-19 and volatile commodity prices.” It is therefore essential that innovation and investment is more evenly spread.

In the meantime, Fairtrade continues its work, “putting more money in farmers’ pockets; protecting the environment and building agricultural communities’ resilience to shocks.”

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Hero image courtesy of Nathan Dumlao.

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Karl Finn

Writer in London. Currently run events at Google, formerly V&A and Sotheby’s. Founder of Predictedit, a newsletter bringing together trends, research and ideas.